Why Formless Meditation can be difficult to relate to at first and why we should keep going

I think it is important to get some experience of not-doing, of relaxing and trusting our experience, and then perhaps going on to develop that further with different kinds of meditation.

A student writes:

I get the impression that some people find it difficult to relate to Formless Meditation. Would you consider giving other meditation instruction, e.g. counting numbers, focusing on an external object or visualisation of various kinds, on an individual basis?”

Lama Shenpen replies:

It is true that formless meditation can be difficult to relate to. It is a total challenge to our usual habitual way of carrying on, always looking for entertainment and something to grasp onto or some kind of project to succeed at – in fact anything rather than just be with our experience directly and simply.

I think it does not matter if people have difficulty with it. As they go through these difficulties they learn all sorts of things about their experience, about their habits of mind. It is through sticking with formless meditation that the teachings start to make sense to us.

We start to see that it is true that we are always trying to avoid looking at our experience in a direct and simple way. In fact we hardly know what is wrong and what we are doing, or even that there is another way of being.

Formless meditation takes time to learn. Often people get discouraged along the way and think that they would rather have something more definite to do.

I think it is important to get some experience of not-doing, of relaxing and trusting our experience, and then perhaps going on to develop that further with different kinds of meditation.

Some people worry that they are so distracted nothing could possibly be happening. But then, they suddenly report that they have noticed that perhaps the thoughts and feelings that come up are not the problem they always thought they were.

Somehow they have found a way of being that is more relaxed and spacious so that the thoughts can come and go. They have found a kind of stability within which they can allow that to be. It did not happen that they stopped the thoughts and then found this; rather they found this by finding they could not stop the thoughts and furthermore, there was no need to.

Mostly I find what people need most of all is encouragement to keep going, to keep returning to the same points over and over again until the penny starts to drop. If I start to introduce too many other practices they become a kind of seduction away from the main point. Then I am just feeding people’s wish to fill up space with something definite to do – same old story as before.

The other practices emerge out of the formless meditation and lead back into it – an ever deepening process. We have to get a good taste of the formless first and some sense of what that is about, then the other practices are helpful as a means of leading back into that formlessness rather than distracting us away from it.

Sometimes I suggest that people count their breaths up to 10 when they first sit down, but for most people the liturgy creates the right sort of atmosphere at the start, just to calm down if they have been rushing about and are particularly distracted.

I introducing mantra practice from time to time, especially at retreats. Mantra can be used simply as a means of focusing and stabilising the mind. This would be to use it as a means for developing shamatha (calm abiding).

Formless meditation produces shamatha but in a way that opens itself up to vipashyana (insight). It is the insight that brings about liberation at a very deep and complete level. Calm abiding is nice for a while, but by itself it is not a means to liberation, it’s more a kind of trance: we have temporarily calmed the mind, but all the causes of suffering are still intact and eventually will rear their heads as before.

Vipashyana is the radical response to suffering, really going for its root, cutting it off at its root so it cannot grow up again. Formless meditation is the basis for vipashyana: first we recognise that thoughts and feelings are like waves on an ocean that do not disturb the ocean, and this brings the calm.

Then we are able to really experience the nature of those waves fully and completely, and this brings the insight and liberation. Once this is well established, mantra practice can become a very powerful means for linking into the power of the lineage. It can speed up the whole process of dismantling the distortions of Openness, Clarity, and Sensitivity like wind blowing away clouds.

Mantra can be done even before we have much experience of shamatha and vipashyana as a connection with that blessing power. Mantras do have power from their own side – that is why it is important to choose a mantra carefully. It matters where it comes from and what mandala it draws you into.

I like to introduce people to the Prajnaparamita mantra first in conjunction with the Heart Sutra. I find people relate to this mantra very well generally speaking and I think it is because it links us so directly into truth of the Dharma.

I introduce visualisations very gradually. Neither Trungpa Rinpoche nor Khenpo Rinpoche introduce visualisations until people have a very good understanding of Dharma as well as experience of formless meditation and emptiness.

The trouble with visualisations is that they can just become mind games and not really change us at all. It is possible to get Enlightened without so-called visualisation practices, but nobody can get Enlightened without formless meditation.

Having said all this, I have often wondered whether it would not give people more confidence in their experience if I taught a method using the Dhyana (absorption) states as are described in the life of the Buddha.

The idea is that by practising shamatha very strongly you can induce a strong state of meditation (samadhi) of limitless space, limitless consciousness and so on. There are Buddhist teachers who recommend this as a way of building up one’s confidence in the practice and stilling the mind. I was never taught this and was always warned off it as an unnecessary distraction.

Rigdzin Shikpo [Lama’s teacher] practised in that way before he met Trungpa Rinpoche and found out for himself what the limitations of that way of practising are. So he can say from his direct experience. He is not interested in teaching that kind of meditation at all even though it gave him a lot of strong experiences. He said that in the end you realise that it is just playing games. It is a lot of effort and it gets you nowhere. You only have to come back and start all over again from scratch with the formless meditation.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

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